The Road to Little Dribbling, by Bill Bryson

>> Thursday, March 03, 2016

TITLE: The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes From a Small Island
AUTHOR: Bill Bryson

PAGES: 400
PUBLISHER: Doubleday

SETTING: Contemporary UK
TYPE: No-Fiction
SERIES: Follow-up to Notes From A Small Island

A loving and hilarious—if occasionally spiky—valentine to Bill Bryson’s adopted country, Great Britain. Prepare for total joy and multiple episodes of unseemly laughter.

Twenty years ago, Bill Bryson went on a trip around Britain to discover and celebrate that green and pleasant land. The result was Notes from a Small Island, a true classic and one of the bestselling travel books ever written. Now he has traveled about Britain again, by bus and train and rental car and on foot, to see what has changed—and what hasn’t.

Following (but not too closely) a route he dubs the Bryson Line, from Bognor Regis in the south to Cape Wrath in the north, by way of places few travelers ever get to at all, Bryson rediscovers the wondrously beautiful, magnificently eccentric, endearingly singular country that he both celebrates and, when called for, twits. With his matchless instinct for the funniest and quirkiest and his unerring eye for the idiotic, the bewildering, the appealing, and the ridiculous, he offers acute and perceptive insights into all that is best and worst about Britain today.

Nothing is more entertaining than Bill Bryson on the road—and on a tear. The Road to Little Dribbling reaffirms his stature as a master of the travel narrative—and a really, really funny guy.
I adore Bill Bryson's travel books. This love is not really because of the subject matter, but mostly due to him. His observations are witty and I find his self-deprecating humour endearing (and hilarious). In short, he's good company.

Or rather, he was.

Unfortunately, in the 15 years since Down Under/In a Sunburned Country, he seems to have turned into someone I don't like very much. The books he wrote in that period were about stuff, so I didn't notice and really enjoyed them. Here, it's all about his opinions (on places, on features of British life, on other people), and there's nowhere to hide.

The premise of The Road to Little Dribbling is that, twenty years after Notes From a Small Island was published, Bryson is about to become a British citizen and takes this as an opportunity to travel round the country again, seeing how it has changed since then. He's not retracing his steps, but broadly following what he has baptised "The Bryson Line", the longest line possible to walk on line, which goes from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath.

And that he does, kind of. Unfortunately, he seems to have taken this book as an opportunity to moan about every single thing that has ever annoyed him. A lot of them are things I agree about (stupid urban planning decisions, celebrities) but the moaning feels so self-indulgent and there's so much of it that it made me want to tear my hair out. I listened to this in audiobook and every time it became clear another whine-fest was starting, I'd start talking out loud: "Oh, for heaven's sake!", "Not again!", "Oh, please make this stop". It's often pedestrian, childish stuff, not even interesting or witty, and the amount of pleasure he takes in venting about random people who offend him is embarrasing. He's also terribly oversimplistic in his analysis of issues. Every time he started a sentence with "Now, I'm not an expert, but...", my heart sank. Forget about not being an expert, he hasn't even bothered to do basic research on quite a bit of this.

And there was also something that was even more troubling. Bryson has always been one to ridicule stupidity, but in previous books it was done in a way that didn't feel like punching down. In The Road to Little Dribbling the punches too often flow downwards, and some of those scenes are quite startling. Too many scenes had a nasty tinge to them, an intolerant "old man moaning about the young today" vibe. There's the unwarranted and frankly vile tirade about a lad coming onto a bus with sticky-out ears, a cap and badly-functioning earphones, which put me in mind of the attitudes Owen Jones highlights in Chavs (the boy didn't do anything other than look a particular way). Then there's the scene in which he reports a sarcastic tirade delivered to a young MacDonald's worker who had the temerity to ask Bryson if he "wanted fries with that". Bryson is really pleased about how he reacted. To be clear, the corporate instruction is stupid (as Bryson said, if he wanted fries with that he would have asked for them), but a prosperous middle-aged bloke going off at a young kid working minimum wage and simply trying to keep his job by doing as instructed by corporate office... well that leaves a bad taste in the mouth. There were much too many scenes like that.

There were also some good moments and some truly funny and witty bits, which is why I finished it (well, that and because part of me couldn't believe I was not liking a Bryson book!). But not enough.



Anonymous,  4 March 2016 at 05:26  

Yes to all of this. Unfortunately, in this book Bill Bryson officially entered into Grumpy Old Man territory.


Rosario 5 March 2016 at 08:37  

It's such a shame. I'm just hoping knowing this won't contaminate how I read his non-travel books!

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